Generations of gardeners have left their mark on – and their plants in – this unique garden, says Non Morris. Photographs by Val Corbett.
A handsome neo-Jacobean house built of sandstone in 1837 around a 14th-century tower house – so there are crenellated roofs and stepped gables aplenty – Carnell House sits comfortably at the heart of a 2,000-acre Ayrshire estate. The position is perfect: it’s hidden away among mature woodland and fertile farmland, yet is only a few miles from the rugged beauty of the west coast.
The same family – originally Wallace, now Findlay – has lived here since the 1300s and, from the moment you arrive at Carnell, you sense the layers of time and the long chain of family history.
One of the reasons the house appears so settled is its approach along a beautiful and imposing lime-tree avenue. This is, in fact, made up of two enormous squares planted with lime trees to commemorate the role of Scottish soldiers in the Allied victory at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743.
Over the years, the limes have been pollarded and, these days, form tremendous gnarled, rustling battalions of their own. The effect is made more extraordinary as the squares are on raised banks which, in turn, form a broad, emerald-green avenue to guide the eye up to the front of the house and frame the views of the surrounding countryside.
Micky Findlay has been custodian of Carnell for the past 20 years and discovered the delights of using a golf cart to get around the estate when he broke his leg a few years ago. With the great scale of everything here – even the huge spreading oaks that punctuate the apron of land leading up to the house don’t appear to take up much space – it’s a habit he continues to enjoy.
We speed over the immaculately raked gravel circle, around a central bed in which an Osmanthus delavayi is clipped into a topiary mushroom, and head towards the walled garden, stopping at the herbaceous borders. The surprise of this glorious, almost electric, 100-yard long rainbow of colour is all the greater as these borders aren’t inside the walled garden (now a family garden for the Garden House that’s been built within its walls), but are, instead, below its south-west wall, in a sheltered, almost sunken area that was once a quarry.
Mr Findlay’s great-grandmother, Georgina Findlay-Hamilton, inherited Carnell in 1904 and, together with her husband, George, set about creating a companionable garden (he designed the herbaceous border and she was responsible for the lush pool, rockery and wild garden on the opposite side of the mown path), which has endured as an unspoilt example of Edwardian gardening style for more than a century.
A satisfyingly noisy waterfall leads through sheaves of bamboo, ferns and the rounded leaves of Darmera peltata to the pool, where the water is calm and glassy, offering lovely reflections of the huge blue-grey hosta leaves that hang above it and punctuated only by islands of flag iris or bulrush and by a stone Japanese lantern.
The waterside planting builds as the ground rises, so that the small wooden pagoda perched on a hummock is dwarfed by the Gunnera manicata, towering clouds of smoky-blue Campanula lactiflora, more bamboo and the tumbling pale-pink Ayrshire Splendens rose. The pagoda and its pair of slender Buddhas form part of a collection of pieces that was acquired in the days when the family owned teak mills in Burma and traded in Japan.
The herbaceous border that lies parallel to this is, however, entirely British. Over the years – together with the whole of the Carnell estate, perhaps – it’s become gentler and more informal than its earliest, immaculately ranked incarnation. ‘Dad let it relax a bit,’ says Mr Findlay, adding, perhaps not entirely seriously, that his plant-loving father, John, used to claim: ‘I like quantity and not quality.’
What is certainly special about the enormous border today is that some of the plants seem, like pieces of family furniture, to have always been there. One such example is a towering form of meadowsweet that sits at the back of the border, against iron railings smothered in honeysuckle and the rich-red single Dortmund rose. This ancient plant used to be known as ‘spirea’, but you would buy it now as Filipendula rubra Venusta and find it described as a noble plant with the sort of no-need-to-stake longevity that Piet Oudolf would be proud to recommend.
Other incredibly long-lived plants here include the giant, palest-yellow scabious Cephalaria gigantea and further cloud-like stands of pale-blue Campanula lactiflora.
There are rhythmic bursts of the tough yellow Lysimachia punctata along the front of the border, as well as clumps of rosy astilbe and, further back, a wonderful monarda in a particularly intense shade of carmine pink. John’s favourite shell-pink sidalceas – like small, more delicate hollyhocks – are still there (they include the lovely Reverend Page Roberts) and, still jostling with bright-orange alstroemerias, are stands of dazzling delphiniums.
The route back to the house takes in another simple and long-lasting piece of garden design: a castellated allée of clipped yew, a gentle celebration of the castellations on the other side of the house. Framed
at either end – as it has been since its Edwardian beginnings – by an arch of the creamy-white, strongly fragrant Rosa filipes Kiftsgate, this elegant walk casts wonderful shadows as you progress along it.
The sense of shelter and protection is emphasised by the trees, including mature copper beech and whitebeam, that grow right up to the path.
‘On a day like today, there’s nowhere nicer than being by the pond,’ says Mr Findlay as we cross over to the west side of the house and hurtle down to the large pond he created about 10 years ago.
‘I had always wondered about some water here,’ he adds as we glance back up to the house across the expanse of water that looks as if it’s always been there, the edges laced with flag iris and the pretty pink-flowered native rush Butomus umbellatus.
The pond is a well-judged 20th-century balance to the excitement elsewhere in the garden and a sign that the current generation is thoughtfully adding to what has gone before.
Back by the front door, looking out along the lime-tree avenue, it’s easy to imagine how fine the trees will look in winter, welcoming guests to the regular shooting parties. Come spring, the lawns of the Scottish Squares will be yellow with daffodils and, by summer, the trees will be gently rustling their leaves again.
The house is available throughout the year on an exclusive-use basis for shooting parties, weddings and corporate and private parties. Garden visits by appointment. Visit www.carnellestates.com for more details.
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